Build A Better Back

Backpacker Magazine

By Kimberly Wong, September 2003

Imagine your body is a tree. (C'mon, work with us here.) Your legs are the roots, your arms the branches. And in the middle, supporting it all, is your back. As a hiker, you know strong legs are important. They anchor your body and keep you steady as you move down the trail. But how many of us pay attention to strengthening the back?

"The trunk is where everything starts. If everything's centered around it, you don't want that to be the weakest link," says Zack Weatherford, strength and conditioning coordinator for the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA. This is especially true for anyone who hoists a heavy pack.

With that in mind, we asked exercise physiologists and elite athletes to share their most effective workouts for the back and other core muscle groups. Try these exercises, and you'll notice big benefits on the trail, like better balance, more efficient load carrying, stronger climbing, and less soreness. Not to mention, you'll enjoy better posture on and off the trail.

The Superman

Beneath that red cape, the Man of Steel sported some chiseled back muscles. Mimic his famous flying pose by lying on your stomach and lifting your arms and legs off the ground so that the only part of you touching the floor is your stomach. Hold for about 10 seconds and repeat 10 times. You can change the position of your arms so that they're straight ahead or by your side. "The rhomboids, those muscles located between your shoulder blades, get a really good workout," says Bonnie Nye, medical director for the Sports Medicine and Performance Center in Philadelphia.
Target: shoulders and upper back

Sit-Ups Doing ab exercises may rank right next to flossing on our favorite activities list. But as your dentist would cheerfully offer, it's a great habit to get into. When the stomach is weak, the lower back tends to overcompensate, which can lead to soreness and injuries.

"The key to the sit-up is a 1-to-2 ratio," says Kate Johnson, a rower on the U.S. women's world champion team. She uses her core muscles to transfer power from her legs to her arms. "If it takes you 1 second to sit up, take 2 seconds to go back down. Really emphasize coming back down slowly and not just falling." Perform these at least 3 days a week and work up to two sets of 20 to 30.

Challenge yourself by adding a twist to your sit-up as you come to the top. "Think about Rocky," says Weatherford. "You know in the movies where he's doing sit-ups and as he comes up he twists from side to side and goes back down."
Target: abs and obliques, which support your lower back and help with balance

The Bicycle

Runner and record-holding fast hiker Buzz Burrell spends up to 12 straight days cruising on trails and can't afford to let his back get out of shape. "Everything is getting worked so much on the trail that if there's any weakness anywhere, it's going to blow up," says Burrell, who trains his core with the bicycle-style sit-up. Lie down with your hands behind your head and your lower back flat on the floor. Make a slow pedaling motion by extending and bending the leg, bringing the knee toward your chest. As you bring each knee in, sit up and touch it with the opposite elbow. Mix a set of 20 in with your sit-up routine.
Target: abs and obliques


Olympic gymnast Sean Townsend swears by V-Ups as a key to better flexibility (which you'll need for scrambling moves on the trail). With your back on the floor and with your arms stretched out straight above your head, make sure your legs are together, then raise your upper body and your legs up simultaneously to form a V. Try touching your toes with your hands. Do this slowly and start to increase the speed once you get in a rhythm. "After about 20, I'm really hurting," says Townsend. "But doing these has definitely allowed me to avoid any more back injuries."
Target: abs and lower back

Chin Up, Lad

This junior-high gym class staple is also big-wall climber Pete Takeda's secret to a strong back. "Chin-ups make you integrate a lot of different movements and force you to use several different muscles as you pull your body up," he says. Grab hold of a bar with your hands facing away from you and lift your chin up over the bar. Do as many as you can twice a week.
Target: the entire upper body, including shoulders, lats, traps, and biceps

The Plinth

If you want the results of pumping iron without setting foot in a gym, this simple move will do it for you. Lie on your side and use your elbow to prop yourself up with your knees bent slightly. You should be resting your body weight on your hips, feet, forearm, and elbow. Your back should be in a straight line, not dipping toward the floor. Slowly lift your hips off the floor and hold the position for up to 15 seconds. Repeat 10 to 12 times for three sets on each side. "This works the quadratus lumborum, or the muscle that helps to stabilize the pelvis and the trunk area," says Lynn Millar, a physical therapist and American College of Sports Medicine fellow.
Target: abs, obliques, and lower back


Essential Exercises
5 easy ways to get strong and avoid injuries
by Christie Aschwanden, Julie Cederborg, BACKPACKER magazine

A good set of lungs goes a long way in the backcountry, but aerobic training is only half the battle. Reebok Master Trainer Petra Kolber recommends a regular at-home maintenance program to keep key muscle groups tuned up. Do these five exercises two or three times a week.

Toe lift
Target: Shins

If you're planning a trip with plenty of descending, this exercise will help protect your shins from the pounding.

Sit in a chair with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your hands resting on your thighs. Place your right heel on top of your left foot. Lift the front of your left foot, bending at the ankle and keeping your heel on the floor, while pressing down with your right heel to add as much resistance as you need. Pause and return to the starting position. Repeat eight to 12 times, then switch legs. Build up to three sets.

Calf raise
Target: Calves

This exercise will strengthen your calves to avoid strains and add power for the steeps.

Stand facing a wall, with your feet hip-distance apart, and gently rest both of your hands on the wall for support. Press up onto the balls of your feet. Pause and return to starting position. Repeat eight to 12 times. Build up to three sets.

Target: Core strength and shoulder stability

Your core keeps you upright on the trail and controls the weight of your pack. Working it will ward off fatigue and prevent injuries to other muscles you rely on when your core gets tired.

Lie on your stomach with your abdominal muscles pulled in tight. Prop yourself up on your elbows. Keeping your back straight, push up with your forearms and toes. Hold for three to five breaths and lower. Repeat eight to 12 times. Build up to three sets.

Wall squat
Target: Glutes and hamstrings

Develop strong glutes and hamstrings, and you'll be far less sore after a day of descending.

Stand with your back to a wall, arms down by your sides. Walk your feet out 6 to 8 inches in front of you and put your feet together. Slowly slide down the wall until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Pause, and then push up to the starting position. Repeat eight to 12 times. Build up to three sets.

Quadricep lift
Target: Quads

To power up hills, you need killer quads. Thank us after your next set of switchbacks.

Sit upright on the floor and extend your right leg out in front of you, placing a folded towel under your knee. Bend your left knee and keep your left foot flat on the ground. Place your hands palm-down on the floor behind you. Contract your right thigh and lift your right heel off the floor. Hold for three to five breaths and lower to the starting position. Repeat eight to 12 times and switch legs. Build up to three sets.